It was a pity that amid all this art and literature Leo had to play politics. But he was head of a state, and lived at a time when the powers beyond the Alps had ambitious leaders, large armies, and lusty generals; at any moment Louis XII of France and Ferdinand the Catholic might agree to divide Italy as they had agreed to divide the Kingdom of Naples. To meet these threats—and incidentally to strengthen the Papal States and aggrandize his family—Leo planned to combine Florence (which he already ruled through his brother Giuliano and his nephew Lorenzo) with Milan, Piacenza, Parma, Modena, Ferrara, and Urbino into a new and powerful federation to be ruled by loyal Medici; to unite these with the existing States of the Church as a barrier to aggression from the north; if possible, to secure by marriage, for some member of his house, the succession to the throne of Naples; and, with an Italy so welded into strength, to lead Europe in one more crusade against the ever threatening Turks. Machiavelli, who had no prejudice in favor of Christianity or the popes, warmly approved of this plan, at least so far as concerned the unification and protection of Italy; this was the leading idea of The Prince.
Pursuing these aims with very limited military means at his disposal, Leo used all the methods of statecraft and diplomacy employed by the princes of his day. It was inconvenient that the head of a Christian Church should have to lie, break faith, steal, and kill; but by the common consent of kings these procedures were indispensable to the preservation of a state. Leo, a Medici first and a pope afterward, played the game as well as his corpulence, his fistula, his hunts, his liberalities, and his finances would allow. All the kings denounced him, disappointed that he would not behave like a saint; “Leo,” said Guicciardini, “deceived the expectations conceived of him at his accession, since he appeared to be endowed with greater prudence, but with much less goodness, than all had imagined.”93 For a long time his enemies thought that his Machiavellian subtlety was due to the influence of his cousin Giulio (the future Clement VII), or to Cardinal Bibbiena; but as events matured it became clear that they had to deal with Leo himself, not a lion but a fox, suave and slippery, cunning and incalculable, grasping and devious, sometimes frightened and often hesitant, but, in the last resort, capable of decision, resolution, and persistent policy.
Let us leave his relations with the transalpine states to a later chapter, confine ourselves here to Italian affairs, and deal with these summarily, for the art of Leo’s time is a much more living thing than its politics. He had a great advantage over his predecessors, for Florence, which had opposed Alexander and Julius, was now happy to be part of his realm, since he gave its citizens many papal plums; and when he visited the city of his ancestors it raised a dozen artistic arches to welcome him. From that point d’appui, and from Rome, he deployed his diplomats and patronage and troops to swell his state. In 1514 he secured Modena. In 1515 Francis I prepared to invade Italy and take Milan; Leo organized an army and an Italian alliance to resist him, and ordered the Duke of Urbino, as a vassal of the Holy See and a general in the service of the Church, to join him at Bologna with all the forces he could muster. The Duke, Francesco Maria della Rovere, flatly refused to come, though Leo had recently advanced him money to pay his troops. The Pope with some reason suspected him of having a secret understanding with France.94 As soon as his hands were freed from foreign entanglements, Leo summoned Francesco to Rome; the Duke in stead fled to Mantua. Leo excommunicated him, and listened unmoved to the entreaties and messages of Elisabetta Gonzaga and Isabella d’Este, aunt and mother-in-law of the reckless prince; papal troops took Urbino unresisted, Francesco was declared deposed, and Leo’s nephew Lorenzo became Duke of Urbino (1516). A year later the people of the city rose and expelled Lorenzo; Francesco organized an army and recaptured his duchy; Leo was hard put to it to raise funds and forces to recapture it in turn; he succeeded after eight months of war, but the cost exhausted the papal treasury, and turned the good will of Italy against the Pope and his grasping family.
Francis I took the opportunity to win the friendship of the Pope, and proposed a marriage between Lorenzo, the restored Duke of Urbino, and Madeleine de La Tour d’Auvergne, who had a charming income of 10,000 crowns ($125,000?) a year. Leo agreed; Lorenzo went to France (1518), like an echo of Borgia, and brought back Madeleine and her dowry. A year later she died in giving birth to a daughter Caterina, the future Queen Catherine de Médicis of France; and shortly thereafter Lorenzo himself died, allegedly of a sexual disease contracted in France.95 Leo now declared Urbino a papal state, and sent a legate to govern it.
During these complications he had had to bear with two bitter signs of his political weakness and growing unpopularity. One of his generals, Gianpaolo Baglioni, ruler of Perugia by papal grace, had gone over to Francesco Maria, taking Perugia with him; Leo later lured Gianpaolo to Rome with a safe-conduct, and had him put to death (1520). Baglioni had shared also in a conspiracy, led by Alfonso Petrucci and other cardinals, to assassinate the Pope (1517). These cardinals had made such demands upon Leo as even his generosity could not meet; Petrucci, moreover, raged because his brother, with Leo’s connivance, had been ousted from the government of Siena. He planned at first to kill Leo with his own hand, but was persuaded instead to bribe Leo’s physician to poison the Pope while treating his fistula. The plot was discovered; the physician and Petrucci were executed, and several accomplice cardinals were imprisoned and deposed; some were released on paying enormous fines.
Leo’s need for money was now souring his once happy reign. His gifts to relatives, friends, artists, writers, and musicians, his lavish maintenance of an unprecedented court, the insatiable demands of the new St. Peter’s, the expense of the Urbino war and the preparation for a crusade, were leading him to bankruptcy. His regular revenue of 420,000 ducats ($5,250,000?) a year from fees, annates, and tithes was completely inadequate, and yet was always more difficult to secure from a Europe resentful of ecclesiastical collections flowing to Rome. To replenish his treasury Leo created 1353 new and saleable offices, for which the appointees paid a total of 889,000 ducats ($11,112,500?). We must not be too virtuous about this; most of the offices were sinecures whose modest toil could be delegated to subordinates; the sums paid for these appointments were in effect loans to the papacy; the salaries, averaging ten per cent per year on the initial payment, were interest on the loans; Leo was selling what we would now designate as government bonds;96 and he would doubtless have urged that he paid a much handsomer return than governments pay today. However, he sold not only these sinecures, but even the highest offices, like that of papal chamberlain.97 In July, 1517, he named thirty-one new cardinals, many of them men of ability, but most of them chosen frankly for their capacity to pay for the honor and power. So Cardinal Ponzetti—physician, scholar, author—paid 30,000 ducats; altogether Leo’s pen on this occasion brought half a million ducats into the treasury.98 Even blasé Italy was shocked; and in Germany the story of the transaction shared in the anger of Luther’s revolt (October, 1517). When, in this momentous year, Sultan Selim conquered Egypt for the Ottoman Turks, Leo appealed in vain for a crusade. In his blind eagerness he sent agents throughout Christendom to offer extraordinary indulgences in return for contrition, confession, and contribution to the expenses of the proposed crusade.
Sometimes he borrowed money at forty per cent from the bankers of Rome, who charged him such rates because they feared that his careless administration of papal finances would ensure bankruptcy. As security for some of these loans he pledged his silver plate, his tapestries, his jewels. He rarely thought of economizing, and when he did it was by defaulting on the salaries of his Greek Academy and the University of Rome; as early as 1517 the former was closed for lack of funds. He continued his intemperate benevolence, sending rich subsidies to monasteries, hospitals, and charitable institutions throughout Christendom, heaping dignities and funds upon the Medici, and feeding his guests Lucullanly while himself eating and drinking in moderation.99 All in all he spent during his pontificate 4,500,000 ducats ($56,250,000?), and died owing 400,000 more. A pasquinade expressed the opinion of Rome: “Leo has eaten up three pontificates: the treasury of Julius II, the revenues of Leo, and those of his successor.”100 When he died Rome experienced one of the worst financial crashes in its history.
His final year was rife with war. Having regained Urbino and Perugia, it seemed to him that control of Ferrara and the Po was indispensable to the security of the Papal States, and their capacity to check France at Milan. Duke Alfonso had given the requisitecasus belli by sending troops and artillery to Francesco Maria for use against the Pope. Alfonso, though ill, and well-nigh exhausted after a generation of papal hostility, fought on with his usual courage, and was saved by Leo’s death.
The Pope too was ill in August, 1521, partly from the pain of his fistula, partly from the worries and excitement of war. He recovered, but fell sick again in October. In November he was well enough to be taken out to his country villa at Magliana. There the news reached him that the papalimperial army had captured Milan from the French. On the 25th he returned to Rome, and was given the wild reception accorded only to victors in war. He walked too much that day, perspiring till his clothes were drenched. The next morning he was put to bed with fever. Now he rapidly grew worse, and realized that his end was near. On December 1 he was cheered by intelligence that Piacenza and Parma had in their turn been taken by the papal forces; once he had declared that he would gladly give his life for the addition of those cities to the States of the Church. At midnight, December 1–2, 1521, he died, ten days before completing his forty-fifth year. Many of the attendants, and some members of the Medici family, carried off from the Vatican everything they could lay their hands on. Guicciardini, Giovio, and Castiglione thought that he had been poisoned, perhaps at the instigation of Alfonso or Francesco Maria; but apparently he died of malarial fever, like Alexander VI.101
Alfonso rejoiced at the news, and struck a new medal EX ORE LEONIS, “from the jaws of the lion.” Francesco Maria returned to Urbino, and was once more restored to his throne. In Rome the bankers despoiled themselves. The Bini firm had lent Leo 200,000 ducats, the Gaddi 32,000, the Ricasoli 10,000; moreover, Cardinal Pucci had lent him 150,000, and Cardinal Salviati 80,000;102 the cardinals would have first claim on anything salvaged; and Leo had died worse than bankrupt. Some others joined in condemning the dead Pope as a maladministrator of great wealth. But nearly all Rome mourned him as the most generous benefactor in its history. Artists, poets, and scholars knew that the heyday of their good fortune had passed, though they had no suspicion yet of the extent of their disaster. Said Paolo Giovio: “Knowledge, art, the common well-being, the joy of living—in a word, all good things—have gone down into the grave with Leo.”103
He was a good man ruined by his virtues. Erasmus had rightly praised his kindness and humanity, his magnanimity and learning, his love and support of the arts, and had called Leo’s pontificate an age of gold.104 But Leo was too habituated to gold. Raised in a palace, he learned luxury as well as art; he never labored for his income, though he faced perils bravely; and when the revenues of the papacy were placed in his trust they slipped through his careless fingers while he basked in the happiness of recipients, or planned expensive wars. Proceeding on the lines laid down by Alexander and Julius, and inheriting their achievements, he made the Papal States stronger than ever, but he lost Germany by his extravagance and his exactions. He could see the beauty of a vase, but not the Protestant Reformation taking shape beyond the Alps; he paid no attention to a hundred warnings sent him, but asked for more gold from a nation already in revolt. He was a glory and a disaster to the Church.
He was the most generous, but not the most enlightened, of patrons. With all his patronage no great literature arose in his reign. Ariosto and Machiavelli were beyond him, though he could appreciate Bembo and Politian. His taste in art was not as sure and lordly as that of Julius; it was not to him that we owe St. Peter’s or The School of Athens. He loved beautiful form too much, too little the revealing significance that great art clothes in beautiful form. He overworked Raphael, underestimated Leonardo, and could not, like Julius, find a way through Michelangelo’s temper to his genius. He liked comfort too much to be great. It is a pity to judge him so harshly, for he was lovable.
The age received his name, and perhaps rightly; for though he rather took than gave its stamp, it was he who brought from Florence to Rome the Medicean heritage of wealth and taste, the princely patronage that he had seen in his father’s house; and with that wealth, and papal sanction, he provided an exciting stimulus to such literature and art as excelled in style and form. His example stirred a hundred other men to seek out talent, support it, and set northern Europe a precedent and standard of apprecation and worth. He more than any other pope protected the remains of classic Rome, and encouraged men to rival them. He accepted the pagan enjoyment of life, and yet, in his own conduct, remained remarkably continent in an uninhibited age. His support of the Roman humanists helped to spread into France their cultivation of classic literature and form. Under his aegis Rome became the throbbing heart of European culture; thither the artists flocked to paint or carve or build, the scholars came to study, the poets to sing, the men of wit to sparkle. “Before I forget thee, Rome,” wrote Erasmus, “I must plunge into the river of Lethe…. What precious freedom, what treasures in the way of books, what depths of knowledge among the learned, what beneficial social intercourse! Where else could one find such literary society, or such versatility of talent in one and the same place?”105 The gentle Castiglione, the polished Bembo, the learned Lascaris, Fra Giocondo, Raphael, the Sansovini and Sangalli, Sebastiano and Michelangelo—where shall we find again, in one city and decade, such a company?